Penn men show defensive mettle versus Harvard in 75-72 overtime win

Penn nearly gave the game away several times down the stretch against Harvard Friday evening at the Palestra. But it held on for a 75-72 win in overtime that it needed to avoid a fourth 0-3 start to Ivy League play in five seasons.

Penn seemed to be on the verge of victory when an inbounds turnover gave Harvard possession down 58-56 late. With 1.7 seconds on the clock, Noah Kirkwood hit a fadeaway jumper over the outstretched hand of AJ Brodeur to force an overtime period in which Penn again built an early lead, eventually getting to a 68-63 advantage off a Devon Goodman basket with 77 seconds remaining and making hay on multiple trips to the free throw line to gain a 75-69 edge.

Justin Bassey wouldn’t let the Crimson fade easily, though, hitting a triple with nine seconds left to set up a four-point play opportunity after Ray Jerome inexplicably fouled him. Bassey missed the free throw but got his own rebound. Fortunately for Penn, Noah Kirkwood’s subsequent would-be game-tying three-point attempt rimmed out and Devon Goodman ran out the clock on a win that showed Penn has some defensive mettle.

Penn’s adjusted defensive efficiency is not among the league’s top four, per KenPom, and its three-point percentage allowed defensively remains the highest in the Ivy League. Harvard’s offense, even without the still injured Bryce Aiken, has the potential to make opponents pay inside and out, and the Crimson had four players in double figures: Bassey, Kirkwood, Christian Juzang and Chris Lewis, who had a team-high 16 points, though on 7-for-20 shooting.

But Harvard struggled to get good looks, shooting a paltry 23-for-59 (39%) from two-point range and 6-for-21 (28.6%) from three-point range. Penn held the Crimson to 0.94 points per possession, its lowest total in six games. Brodeur more than held his own against Lewis inside, and Penn’s perimeter defenders closed out well on shots.

Penn opened the game on a 24-5 run before Harvard responded with a 19-3 rally of its own to whittle the home team’s lead to 27-24. But Penn’s subsequently defense tightened up and held the Crimson to four points in the final 5:50 of the first half, a critical stand to take a 35-28 lead into halftime.

Coming off a game in which Penn stymied Temple, 58-51, maybe the Red & Blue’s defensive performance is a harbinger of still greater stinginess to come.

AJ Brodeur stuffed another stat sheet, posting 20 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three blocks and two steals, anchoring a Penn squad whose ceiling remains high.

The loss marked Harvard’s first overtime defeat since Jan. 14, 2015, snapping a 10-game winning streak in contests that took extra time. It was Harvard’s first Ivy overtime loss in 11 years (Jan. 24, 2009, versus Dartmouth). Harvard had been 19-1 in overtime games since 2009.

Of course, Harvard’s ceiling is high too, and much of its blueprint for success was evident even in defeat: crashing the offensive boards (21 such snares to Penn’s five), working through Lewis inside and managing a balanced scoring attack in Aiken’s absence.

Harvard’s interior defense, though, is typically more effective than it was Friday. The Crimson entered the Penn contest ranked in the top 40 nationally in two-point percentage allowed defensively, according to KenPom. After Penn shot 21-for-35 (60%) in that range, the Crimson fell to 51st nationally.

Penn’s defense won the day instead.